Zheng Zhilong (1604–1661), also known as Nicholas Iquan Gaspard, was a Chinese merchant, pirate and military leader in the late Ming dynasty who later defected to the Qing dynasty. He was from Nan'an, Fujian. He was the father of Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), the founder of the pro-Ming Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan. After his defection, he was enfeoffed as a Count of the Second Rank by the Qing government, but was eventually executed because of his son's continued resistance against the Qing regime.
Zheng was born in Nan'an, Fujian, the son of Zheng Shaozu (鄭紹祖), a mid-level financial official for the Quanzhou government, and Zheng Shaozu's wife Lady Huang (黃氏). Contemporary biographies tell a possibly apocryphal story of how when Zheng was a child, he and his brothers wanted to eat longan fruit. They found a fruit tree in an enclosed courtyard but whose branches hung over the top of the wall into the street. They threw stones in the hope of knocking some of the fruit clusters loose. It happened to be the courtyard of the governor of Quanzhou City, and he was struck by the stones. The boys ran but were caught and hauled before the governor. Due to the child's age and apparent charisma, the governor forgave Zheng and released him, saying "This is the face of one destined for wealth and nobility." The story may or may not be true, but it encapsulated the character of Zheng: he ran wild, grasped at low hanging fruit, got in trouble, and came out the better for it.
Zheng left home as a teenager, jumping aboard a merchant ship. Sources vary on why he left home, some saying he slipped his hand up his stepmother's skirt, others recording his father chasing him through the streets with a stick. Zheng went to Macau where his mother's brother lived (his uncle). He was baptized as a Catholic in Macau, receiving the Christian name Nicholas Gaspard. His uncle asked him to take some cargo to Nagasaki, Japan, where he met a rich old Min man named Li Dan, also known as "Captain China", who became his mentor and possible homosexual lover. Li Dan had close ties with the Europeans and he arranged for Zheng to work as an interpreter for the Dutch (Zheng spoke Portuguese which the Dutch could also speak). In 1622, when Dutch forces took over the Pescadores archipelago off the Taiwan Strait, Li Dan sent Zheng to the Pescadores to work with the Dutch as a translator in peace negotiations. Before leaving Japan he met and married a local woman named Tagawa Matsu. He impregnated her with Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), leaving Japan before she gave birth in 1624. After Li died in 1623, Zheng acquired his fleet of ships.
The Dutch, wishing to control and monopolize commerce routes to Japan, collaborated with Chinese pirates. Zheng initially worked as a translator but soon became a highly successful pirate under the tutelage of the Dutch, who provided ships and weapons in exchange for a cut of the loot. Zheng prospered and by 1627 he was leading four hundred junks and tens of thousands of men. He built ten outposts on Taiwan's southwestern coastal region, between Tainan and Chiayi, but was evicted shortly after when the Dutch arrived on the island.
Shibazhi challenges the Ming fleet
Shibazhi (十八芝) were a pirate organization of 18 well-known Chinese pirates, founded in 1625 by Zheng Zhilong. Members included Shi Lang's father Shi Daxuan (施大瑄). They began to challenge the Ming fleet and won a series of victories. In 1628, Zheng Zhilong defeated the Ming Dynasty's fleet. The Ming Dynasty's southern fleet surrendered to Shibazhi, and Zheng decided to switch from being a pirate captain to working for the Ming Dynasty in an official capacity. Zheng Zhilong was appointed major general in 1628. Stories tell of how Cai, the governor who had forgiven Zheng for stoning him so many years ago, came to Zheng and asked for a position in the Ming navy. Zheng granted this request. Whether or not this story is true is unknown, but it reflects the popular appraisal of Zheng who was seen as a benevolent leader.
Service under the Ming
After joining the Ming navy, Zheng and his wife resettled on an island off the coast of Fujian, where he operated a large armed pirate fleet of over 800 ships along the coast from Japan to Vietnam. He was appointed by the Chinese Imperial family as "Admiral of the Coastal Seas". In this capacity he defeated an alliance of Dutch East India Company vessels and junks under renegade Shibazhi pirate Liu Xiang (劉香) on October 22, 1633 in the Battle of Liaoluo Bay. The spoils of this victory made him fabulously wealthy. He bought up a large amount of land, as much as 60% of Fujian, and became a very powerful landlord.
Zheng would continue to serve the Ming dynasty after the fall of the Ming capital Beijing in June 1644. His brother Zheng Zhifeng was made a marquis under the Southern Ming, although he was forced to abandon his post at Zhenjiang by a superior Qing force. After the capture of Nanjing in 1645, Zheng accepted an offer to serve as commander-in-chief of the imperial forces and was ordered to defend the newly established capital in Fuzhou under the Prince of Tang.
Surrender to Qing
In 1646, Zheng decided to defect to the Manchus leaving the passes of Zhejiang unguarded, allowing Manchu forces to capture Fuzhou. As a result of the Manchu victory, Zheng was greatly rewarded and retired very wealthy. However, he would later be executed by the Qing government in 1661 at Caishikou, as a result of his son's continued resistance against the Qing regime.